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Prolonged isotope shortage could have health implications for years to come

Gauges are shown in the control room of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd.'s research reactor in Chalk River, Ont., in December of 2007.

FRED CHARTRAND

The 15-month shutdown of the Canadian reactor that produces a third of the world's supply of medical isotopes has ended but doctors say the prolonged shortage will likely affect the health of Canadians for years to come.

"I am very excited for our patients and we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was a long tunnel," said Jean-Luc Urbain, the president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.

Dr. Urbain says doctors couldn't run as many tests with isotopes in short supply, which will mean an increase in cases of advanced cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

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"We have seen a decrease of 26 per cent of our [diagnostic]studies," he said. "We are very concerned that there will be, over the next few years, an increase in advanced cardiovascular disease and cancer because the diagnosis was not made."

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns the 53-year-old reactor at Chalk River, Ont., announced Tuesday that the lengthy repairs required after a leak was discovered in May of last year have been completed.

"AECL reports that it has concluded low-power testing on the NRU reactor," the company said in a news release. "As a result, the reactor is now operating at high power and can begin to create medical isotopes."

The repair process was plagued by multiple setbacks and some doctors despaired the unit might never be returned to service.

It was a problem that was exacerbated by the fact the aging reactor in the Netherlands, which is usually responsible for producing another third of the world's supply, was also out of service for long stretches of time over the past year.

AECL said it expects the first isotopes, which are used in a wide range of medical treatments and diagnoses of illnesses including heart disease and cancer, to arrive at MDS Nordion near Ottawa for production later this week.

Nordion said the processed isotopes will be available for distribution by Lantheus Medical Imaging, the U.S. company that ships them to hospitals and clinics un the United States and Canada, shortly thereafter.

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But Dr. Urbain could not estimate when imaging facilities would again be operating at full capacity.

"We have to rebuild the confidence in referring physicians and patients that isotopes are available. We were not able to provide full service for a long time," he said.

The Harper government has said it ultimately wants to get out of the medical isotope business and plans to shut down the reactor permanently in 2016.

Companies that have ideas for producing the isotopes without a nuclear reactor have been asked to submit their proposals to the federal government under a $35-million initiative announced in June.

But Canada does not have a back-up plan for 2016, Dr. Urbain said. "The Dutch have a plan B, which is the construction of a new reactor, and Canada does not have a plan B."

Geoff Regan, the Liberal natural resources critic, said he is pleased that the NRU reactor at Chalk River is running again but, like Dr. Urbain, he is worried about what will happen after 2016.

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"The government is failing to make a long-term plan for the production of isotopes," Mr. Regan told The Globe. "They are relying on unproven techniques for isotope production rather than something that's proven which is a system like the NRU."

Canada has been a world leader in nuclear research and it looks like the government is giving up on that, he said. "The government ought to be planning for a new multi-purpose research reactor."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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